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What to know about Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson

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Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in as the 116th Supreme Court justice upon the retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer at the end of the 2021 term, on June 30, 2022.

Here's what you need to know about the 51-year-old federal appeals court judge who has become the first Black woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Senate confirmation

She was confirmed in a bipartisan vote by the Senate, 53-47, with Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins and Mitt Romney joining the Democrats.

During her confirmation hearings, some GOP senators tried to paint her as a soft-on-crime activist judge who would legislate from the bench.

Their criticisms took aim at Jackson's sentencing record in child pornography cases as a federal trial court judge.

Fulfilling a campaign vow to name a Black woman to the high court, President Biden relished the opportunity to select a justice who reflected the diversity of the nation, noting upon her confirmation that she would be an example for others to follow: "Look, it's a powerful thing when people can see themselves in others."

It's a sentiment Jackson shares. "I am the dream and the hope of the slave," Jackson said at the White House, after she was confirmed. She said of her new role on the court, "I strongly believe that this is a moment in which all Americans can take great pride. We have come a long way toward perfecting our union. In my family, it took just one generation to go from segregation to the Supreme Court of the United States."

Historic nomination

Jackson, as the first Black woman to become a Supreme Court justice, further diversifies a court that for nearly two centuries was composed entirely of White men. Jackson takes her place on the bench 125 years after the Supreme Court upheld racial segregation as constitutional in Plessy v. Ferguson.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson / Credit: The Washington Post
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson / Credit: The Washington Post

She is the second Black justice on the current court, alongside Clarence Thomas, and just the third in history. She is the fourth woman on the current court — the highest number ever — and only the sixth female justice in history.

Harvard Law School graduate

A native of Washington, D.C., Jackson grew up in Florida. A White House bio page notes that her parents attended segregated primary schools in the South and eventually became public school teachers and administrators in the Miami area.

Becoming a judge appears to have been her longtime dream. The 1998 Miami Palmetto Senior High School yearbook describes her as a member of multiple honor societies and quotes her as saying, "I want to go into law and eventually have a judicial appointment."

Jackson attended Harvard University and Harvard Law School. According to the White House, when she told her high school guidance counselor she wanted to go to Harvard, the counselor cautioned her against setting her sights "so high." Jackson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College and cum laude from Harvard Law School.

Former Supreme Court clerk and public defender

She clerked for Breyer on the Supreme Court during the term beginning in October 1999. After stints at elite law firms, she went on to serve as assistant special counsel for the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

She also worked for two years as an assistant federal public defender before returning to the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2010 as vice chair. Jackson's time as a public defender makes her the first justice since Thurgood Marshall to have experience representing criminal defendants.

A leading candidate before vacancy

Jackson was considered a leading candidate for the Supreme Court even before there was a vacancy, with her professional experience representing indigent criminal defendants and nearly nine years on the federal bench making her a favorite. She was selected by President Joe Biden in 2021 to replace Attorney General Merrick Garland on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which is considered to be the nation's second most powerful court and on which three current Supreme Court justices served. Jackson was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit in June 2021, winning support from all Senate Democrats and three Republicans: Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Before her appointment to the D.C. Circuit, Jackson served for more than eight years as a judge on the federal district court in the District of Columbia. She was selected for that post by former President Barack Obama in 2012 and introduced at her confirmation hearing by then-Congressman Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin who would go on to serve as speaker of the House before retiring in 2018. Ryan and Jackson are related by marriage, and he has called her "an amazing person." Ryan said of her, "Our politics may differ, but my praise for Ketanji's intellect, for her character, and for her integrity, is unequivocal."

Obama considered Jackson for the Supreme Court in 2016 to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

High-profile cases 

During her tenure on the district court, Jackson ruled in the high-profile dispute between the House Judiciary Committee and former White House counsel Don McGahn, finding in 2019 that McGahn had to comply with the subpoena for testimony. "Presidents are not kings. This means that they do not have subjects, bound by loyalty or blood, whose destiny they are entitled to control," she wrote. "Rather, in this land of liberty, it is indisputable that employees of the White House work for the people of the United States, and that they take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." She also was on the three-judge panel on the D.C. Circuit that rejected former President Donald Trump's attempt to keep the National Archives and Records Administration from turning over his White House records to the House select committee investigating the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. Jackson joined the opinion written by Judge Patricia Millett that found Trump "provided no basis for this court to override President Biden's judgment and the agreement and accommodations worked out between the Political Branches over these documents." The Supreme Court ultimately gave the green-light for the National Archives to give the records to the January 6 committee, declining a request from Trump to block their release.

Melissa Quinn, Nancy Cordes, Jacob Rosen and The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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